Justice  /  Q&A

Why We Can (Partially) Thank the Military for American Gay Identity

How anti-homosexual policies throughout military history helped shape gay culture today.

You talked about how the military played a role in making San Francisco the gay mecca some consider it to be. How did that happen?

San Francisco is the most popular cultural hub [where this occurred], but this also happened in other port cities like New York and Los Angeles: It all comes down to people being discharged and publicly outed.

During World War II on the coasts, thousands of men poured into these draft ports, and if someone got identified as homosexual, the military would give them what is called a “blue discharge,” named for the blue piece of paper that publicly outed you. If you come from rural areas in the Midwest in the 1940s, and you’ve been publicly outed as homosexual, you might not want to go back. So many of these men from all over the country stayed where they were because, relative to where they were from, these cities were more welcoming. It’s not like 1920s San Francisco is 2017 San Francisco, but it was still more welcoming than 1940s Nebraska. So, because of a military policy, these guys all congregated in these areas and they formed gay districts like the Castro District, which are still around to this day, and are recognized as visible and vibrant symbols of the gay community. It’s a really ironic consequence of these homophobic military policies.

You tell the story of the the 1919 Newport sex scandal to describe “an institutional obsession with homosexuality.” Can you tell the story and elaborate on its implications?

It’s kind of a strange story because Franklin Delano Roosevelt is involved, and he’s viewed as this crusader for liberals. While FDR was a naval officer, his subordinates essentially designed a scheme meant to out gay sailors. It’s very strange to think of a high-ranking naval officer recruiting other naval officers so they can pretend to be gay, but it happened. They went all out with it too: The guys investigating the suspected homosexual actually had sex with them to prove it. It seems so over the top by today’s standards, because why does it matter that they were gay?